There is no question that India desperately needs to generate more power. The energy indicators say it all. It has the lowest per capita consumption of electricity in the world. This when access to energy is correlated with development, indeed with economic growth.
Let us not dismiss the need for energy as a simple issue of intra-national equity when the rich use too much, while the poor do not have enough. This may be true for other natural resources, but energy scarcity is more or less all around. Data shows India’s energy intensity has been falling—we do more with each unit of energy produced. In industry it is down by 2.2 per cent between 2004-05 and 2008-09, and in the agriculture and the service sector by as much as 4.7 per cent annually.
The reason is not hard to see. India has one of the highest prices of energy and it does pinch industry and the domestic consumer. So saving is part of the energy game. This is not to say we must not do more to cut energy use and be more efficient. The point is there are limits to efficiency.
But why am I stating the obvious? The reason is that even though India knows it needs more power, it does not realise it will not get it through conventional ways. It will have to find a new approach to energy security before the high-sounding targets of the power ministry are derailed and ultimately energy security compromised.
Just consider what is happening in the country. There are widespread protests against building major power projects, from thermal to hydel, and now nuclear. At the site of the coal power plant in Sompeta in Andhra Pradesh, the police had to open fire on some 10,000 protesters, killing two. In the alphonso-growing Konkan region farmers are up in arms against a 1,200 MW thermal plant, which, they say, will damage their crop. In Chhattisgarh, people are fighting against scores of such projects, which will take away their land and water. The list of such protests is long even if one does not consider the fact that most of the coal needed to run them is under the forests, and the mines are contested and unavailable.
Hydel projects are no different. Environmentalists are protesting the massive numbers of projects planned on the Ganga that will virtually see it dry over long stretches. The Assam government is asking for a review of the hydel projects in upstream Arunachal Pradesh because it believes these are resulting in floods. Assam’s 2,000 MW Subansiri project is in trouble because state-appointed experts say the dam could have serious impacts in downstream areas. The two yet-to-be-built nuclear projects— the 6,000 MW Jasapara project in Bhavnagar and the 9,900 MW Jaitapur project in Konkan—are already facing people’s enormous anger.
We are not seeing the big picture as yet. We still believe these countless struggles are a minor hiccup. People’s anger can be disregarded, paid for or just squashed. But I believe not. As I have argued in the past, this is the environmentalism of the very poor; people across the country are fighting for survival. They know their poverty will only be replaced by more destitution if and when these projects are built.
It is time we accepted this fact. It is time we accepted that many of the projects, planned or proposed, will not be built. The availability of land and water will be the real constraints on growth. So what do we do?
One, we need a law that makes basic energy a fundamental right of all Indians, like the right to employment, education and now food. This will ensure people are empowered to demand energy as a right and that the state has to share whatever it has with all. This will create real conditions for generating energy in new and different ways. Generation could be decentralised and local or even big and grid-connected. This will give every community a real stake in power development.
Two, India must accept it cannot build all the projects it has planned. It has to prioritise them taking into consideration the cumulative capacity of the environment. In other words, it needs to assess how much water can be taken away for hydel projects while ensuring natural flow in rivers at all times. It must allow only those projects that do not compromise the environment and people’s livelihood. Currently, this is not done. Every stream and every district is up for grabs. In Arunachal Pradesh, there are 10 projects on every stream; some 150 MoUs have been signed, adding to some 50,000 MW of power generation (roughly one-third of the country’s current installed power). Just one block of Chhattisgarh, Dabra, has nine thermal projects in a 10 km radius. MoUs have been signed for 49 projects in Janjgir-Champa district of Chhattisgarh. This madness must stop.
Three, India needs to enhance the capacity of environmental regulators, so that they take correct and clear decisions. Projects need more careful scrutiny, and the assessment must have credibility in people’s eyes.
We must first realise the need to change the game of development. Only then will there be light.